Only treehuggers need apply?

Once upon a time, the phrase ‘green’ implied wide-eyed extremism. You know the types, living in the trees in the Glen of the Downs or rolling in the mud at some bizarre eco hug-in festival in deepest rural Roscommon.

Yes, just as the Dutch wear clogs, the Swiss love their cuckoo clocks and the Irish are all violent alcoholics, so anyone who gives a toss about the world in which we live and which our children shall inherit is an unemployable treehugger. QED.

This intellectual shorthand is more prevalent than you may think. Sections of the Irish media I would suggest actually buys this stereotype. It was reinforced recently from an unexpected source – Dr William Reville, UCC biochemistry professor and the college’s ‘public awareness of science’ officer. Dr Reville is also an Irish Times columnist.

As he explained in his recent column, Gaia (the notion of the Earth as an organic, self-regulating entity) is the new Green God. And the green religion, says Reville, is fundamentalist – i.e. extremist, intolerant and irrational. The antithesis of science, and by extension, scientists such as Dr Reville.

His opening statement is a most unscientific sweeping generalisation: “First, the green movement believes in God, or more precisely, a Godess called Gaia”. Considering that the “green movement” covers a very broad church that encompasses the overwhelming majority of climate scientists and lots of the rest of us who are just extremely concerned citizens, this smear smacks of a cheap shot.

“Belief” in Gaia is, at best, a minority pursuit. Gaia is not in fact a religion at all, merely a way of explaining in lay terms the interconnectedness of the many systems that, operating together, render this planet so hospitable to carbon-based life in all its many forms.

Dr Reville’s mockery of the Garden of Eden from which mankind “has fallen” is in a similar vein. It’s true, a hard core of so-called ‘deep green’ types believe we should abandon civilisation and ‘commune with nature’, whatever that now means. If they represent more than one in 50 contemporary ‘greens’, I’d be very much surprised.

The mockery intensifies as he pokes fun at the “golden rule of sustainability”. Oddly enough, it would seem axiomatic that every system must operate within the resources available to it, or face collapse, such as was witnessed on Easter Island or in the disintegration of the advanced Maya culture in central America.

This is science fact, not religious voodoo. How someone in possession of a doctorate in science (even biochemistry) can think otherwise suggests he has hung his science hat on the door and is pursuing some other grudge or agenda entirely.

Dr Reville then takes a pop at organically produced food, stating that its “claimed nutritional superiority…has no scientific basis”. Many people, green and otherwise are deeply worried about factory farming methods, which include dosing animals that never see the light of day with high levels of antibiotics and growth promoters, as well as the use of high levels of pesticides in plant production.

Apart from the environmental havoc they wreak, guess where these antibiotics and pesticides end up? Yes, in you and me, and in our children. As a scientist, Dr Reville has to know this too, but again, he picks and chooses facts only as they serve his argument, a most un-scientist like practice.

I was reassured to hear that the use of DDT “poses no health hazards”. Except that it is not supported by the facts. DDT is in fact a ‘persistent organic pollutant’. It has a half-life of 2-5 years. It accumulates in the food web, and concentrates in apex predators, such as eagles and other birds. DDT undoubtedly has its uses in tackling malaria but to suggest that it somehow harmless and “poses no health hazards” is demonstrably false.

For me, the biggest howler in an article riddled with half-truths was his bizarre comments regarding global population. “We rarely hear any more of the dangers of the ballooning world population now that birth rates are plummeting –instead, we are smoothly invited to worry about the ill-effects associated with an ageing population”, says Reville.

Plummeting? The good doctor is either winding us up, or he is hopelessly unfamiliar with the facts. Today, there are over 6.7 billion people on the planet. Just 40 years ago, that number was 3 billion. This year, 80 million more people will be born than die – that’s the same as adding the population of Germany to our planet in a single year. Next year will be much the same, and the year after…

Population has not “plummeted”, it has not even levelled off. Dr Reville is again fact-picking, presumably by focusing only on countries where population is in decline; even when you factor these in, we are still adding that 80 million new people a year. This is yet another case of not letting pesky facts get in the way of a good rant.

His piece rambles on with the slur that “many leading greens seem to be Marxists”. Since Dr Reville’s “facts” aren’t factual, there’s really not much point in wondering what his “opinions” are based on.

Dr Reville has, I suppose, the right to harbour a grudge as much as the next fellow. Where it gets a little more serious is that his column appears on a page headed “Science Today”, and in his title, he is described as “public awareness of science officer at UCC”. This could lead the unsuspecting reader to the incorrect conclusion that this is a measured scientific standpoint rather than just one man’s highly idiosyncratic side-swipe at something he has an extremely poor understanding of.

As an alumnus of that fine institution, I have to go along with the contributor to today’s Irish Times Letters Page, John Mulcahy, who wrote: “Denial, generally the preserve of the determindely ignorant, ill befits Dr Reville, who frankly should know better than to rely on the propaganda that more commonly characterises the less evolved of the industrialist species. His credibility is in tatters and one can only wonder at his motives. Is this a common view among the UCC scientific fraternity? If so, we should advise our brightest young minds to seek enlightenment elsewhere”.

Having been in Cork last weekend, I would like to reassure Mr Mulcahy that Dr Reville’s views are entirely, utterly and exclusively his own. Unfortunately, he is only too happy to share them with his captive student audience, however, so maybe Mr Mulcahy’s injunction about seeking scientific enlightenment elsewhere has some merit.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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10 Responses to Only treehuggers need apply?

  1. Gerald Looney says:

    Dr. William Reville presents a point of view which in American Science might be called the “silent majority.” The public press presents this quiet anti-popular, anti-dogma opinion as near apostasy, a heretical defiance of official and doctrinaire priests in green robes. I strongly urge the Johns (Gibbons and Mulcahy) to peruse other scripture in the Bible of science before spending vast effort and valuable public coin on half-vast ideas, and burning Professor Reville at the stake.
    Gerald Looney, MD

  2. John Gibbons says:

    Gerald, what is it about doctors and climate change. First Dr Reville takes leave of his senses, swiftly followed by Dr Maurice Neligan, and now you (I assume you are a medical doctor).

    All three with the same name-calling about “doctrinaire priests in green robes”. Nothing about science. What you call “quiet anti-popular anti-dogma opinion” is nothing of the sort, I would respectfully suggest. It is good old fashioned snake oil and quackery, dressed up in the heroic apparel of being somehow defiant of the “official” line.

    It has been suggested to me that perhaps the very nature of medical training may be the problem; people who are clearly intelligent have all that intellect applied to very narrow rote learning. This is reinforced by years spent cut off from the ‘real’ world working in the hierarchical and institutionalised world of hospitals and interacting almost exclusively with people of an identical background and training.

    This process produces both genuinely brilliant people and conversely some of the cleverest fools you will ever encounter, each operating within their own narrow certainties and doggedly battling against anything that threatens their own internalised orthodoxies. I have met both kinds.

    What is troubling is that people’s natural deference to doctors and academics as being in possessions of superior knowledge means that when they spout drivel (especially on something as critical as climate change) it is often accorded entirely unwarranted respect.

  3. Gerald Looney, MD? Not the Dr. Gerard Looney whose “entire professional career has supported civilian protection and public preparedness”? In which case surely you’d understand the scientific basis for environmental action. By the way, what is American Science? Is it the same as american science, and is it any different from science sceience?

  4. Greenfly says:

    Great article in the irish times this morning, really nailed it on the head for me. Consumptive nihilism – what a great phrase, can honestly say I’ve never heard that one before. As for doctor Reville, guess he gets off on notoriety or attention-seeking. Might be an unresolved potty training issue at the root of it, its usually something as simple as that. Still, as today shows, you get the good as well as the bad in the irish Times which overall is a great newspaper (except for that loony Krauthammer on Mondays). Still, nobody’s perfect!

  5. Gerald Looney says:

    I am honored by these responses since my last Comment (in the Nuclear Energy posting for “A Nuclear 2008”) elicited none. John Gibbons certainly has the Irish flair for language and phraseology, but I must get him pointed in the right direction for optimal use of his talents. He had already shown some objectivity on nuclear energy, and I had previously offered my direct email address in the hope it would pique his interest, or at least present an easy target he could not resist. I would love to send him some lengthy and solid “new scripture” from the scientific Bible, but first I will whet his (and also Curre’s and Firefly’s) appetite by wagering each of them (with Reville an honored guest) a pint of Guinness Stout at Looney’s Tavern in Dublin that the extant global warming hysteria will not be confirmed during the coming decade, and that man and his machines will be exonerated as the cause of natural cycles in climate. Thus saith the Facts! Gerald Looney

  6. Gerald Looney says:

    ADDENDUM: Here is the aforementioned new scripture: global-warming.htm

    I know most of these above authors, and can vouche for their veracity and validity. Veritas Vos Liberabit.
    Gerald Looney, MD (my ex-wife says these initials after my name stand for Mentally Deficient, but John Gibbons has already hinted at that; I might also add that I am suspected of being afflicted with WITZELSUCHT)

  7. Billy the kid says:

    Sorry, am late joining in this discussion, am reminded of it by another letter to the Irish Times remininding that surgeon Maurice Nelligan that spouting garbage about climate change is a bit rich from an experienced doctor whose supposed to be versed in a concept called Evidence Based Science.

    They use it all the time in Medicine, and it means that you ignore the hunches and opinions of quacks in favour of the published, peer-reviewed opinions of internationally renowned experts in the field. Without this, we’d still be sticking leeches onto patients to “draw the distemper” from the blood and other such utter nonsense that passed for medical orthodoxy until good old Evidence-Based Medicine came along and proved it was a load of rubbish.

    Dr Nelligan knows this, but cant seem to be able to apply it to climate science. The other fellow Reville by all accounts just loves stirring it up, and uses science the way a drunk uses a lamppost – for support, not illumination!

  8. Skizz Balisk says:

    This is a very silly Articile which is an attack on one person in perticular.John Gibbons is ignore many major reasons why climate change is mere scare mogering. Scientists state the earth is getting warmer and the Artic ice caps are melting but the same scientists have yet to explain why the Antartic ice caps are expanding.We are hit time and time again with the statement “Before records began” we have only been Keeping records for the past What Two-Hundred and Fifty years?I personal belive in responsibly using the plants resouces and eating organically, but in the same breath many millions of people have died as a result of the ban on DDT.Every geologist or scientist worth his salt will tell you the plant has been changing constanly and forcefully.Are scientist really cocky enough to take on the earth in a futile attempt to hold it in a state we have found to our liking?Is humanity arrogant enough to think it caused climate change let alone think it can stop it?I am not an unreasonable man if I am proved with solid evidence which cannot be disproven or routed I will change my opinion

    PS: Sorry its late

  9. Much of the ‘about us’ page is a decade out of date, nonetheless it received lots of money from Exxon to further their cause; Roy Spencer from is associated with the way dodgy Heartland Institute (Exxon, tobacco company sponsorship etc.) Oh, and your last document, co-written by Arthur B Robinson of the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. They publish a home-schooling kit for “parents concerned about socialism in the public schools” and publish books on how to survive nuclear war. Please Dr. Looney, you can do better than that!

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